So much of our identity in society and culture is built on our name.
It goes far beyond the legal impact of our name such as our documents, passport and banking information.
Our name defines how we identify in this world and how others identify us.
So what happens when you change your name?
As somebody who has changed his name I have particular insights into this subject and will also look into the most interesting research into how name change affects one’s psychology.
1) Feeling empowered
First up is a potential feeling of empowerment.
We can see this in particular when individuals change their names to something they believe is more authentic or tied to their roots or real identity.
Prominent examples include the boxer Cassius Clay, who changed his name to Muhammad Ali and demanded to be known by his new name rather than the “slave name” of Clay which had been forced on his ancestors.
His new name was a point of pride for him and an expression of his reversion to Islam, much as it would also be for fellow revert Cat Stevens who has gone by the name Yusuf Islam ever since changing his faith.
For these people, their name changes were a major empowering moment in their lives in which they adopted what they felt was a more authentic and profound identity to which they preferred the world to know them and refer to them.
On a more small-scale note, I remember in Grade 9 Mandarin class when our teacher Mr. Smith gave everyone in our class a Chinese name.
He based these names on the phonetic sound of our name as well as his intuitive reading of our personality and characteristics.
It was great fun and fascinating for us to refer to each other by our Chinese names in class and helped speed up the learning process.
It also made us feel more empowered and gave us all a real sense of belonging. We weren’t just random students taking part in a Mandarin class, we had Chinese names.
To this day I still remember my Chinese name.
When you change your name or gain an additional name, it can be like opening the doors to a new world.
You unlock a new reality and a new sense of power. You relish the feeling you get from being somebody new, hopefully somebody closer to who you really feel that you are with a name that reflects that.
“At some point, most of us have sought an alternate identity; a space to be free, unbranded by the nomenclature of our personal histories, our families, or our pasts.”
2) Feeling dissociated
Clearly not all name changes are empowering, however.
Whereas Clay felt empowered to change his name to Ali, his ancestors would have felt disempowered to have a new Western name imposed on them by slaveholders.
Jews in medieval Germany were also persecuted and stereotyped by being given new names that were attempting to humiliate or pigeonhole them and keep them out of their “Christian” professions.
“Bribes were necessary to secure ‘nice’ family names, derived from flowers or precious stones…
“Many poorer Jews had unpleasant names foisted on them by malignant clerks: Glagenstrick (gallow’s rope), Eselkopf (donkey’s head), Taschengregger (pick-pocket), Schmalz (grease), Borgenicht (don’t borrow), for example.”
Many Jewish surnames went on to become prestigious and widely respected as a result of their recipients rising to prominence and accomplishment, but at the time they were a clear marker of exclusion or limiting people to certain roles in society.
Jews in Bulgaria were historically prevented from adding -ov and -ova suffixes to their surnames as well, to keep them noticeably separate from the non-Jewish population.
The point is:
Whether by choice or imposition, a new name can be disempowering and dissociative.
It can make you feel more separate from who you really are or believe yourself to be.
It can distance you from your heritage, faith and roots, as, for example, in the case of indigenous First Nations children taken from home in colonial Canada and forced to adopt Anglophone Westernized names and forget about their own names.
In my own case, my name was changed from my father’s surname of Ames to my mother’s surname of Brian when I was around 13, as a result of being raised by my mom and my grandparents wanting me to have their surname.
I had been bullied prior to this in middle school (“what the fuck kind of name is Ames? That’s my dad’s nickname for my sister Amy, you fucking f*ggot”) and continued to be picked on after in early high school.
Ironically I was maliciously ragged on twice as much since people felt I was trying to adopt a more “normal” name and/or because they felt Brian was supposed to be a first name.
This left me feeling dissociated a bit from my name, or like my name somehow wasn’t “approved of” or good enough for my peers and I was seen as even less worthy due to having changed my name.
In this way, a name change can leave you feeling dissociated and less sure of yourself in some cases.
3) A feeling of hiding who you are
The psychological effects of a name change really depend on the context.
My father’s side came from Ukraine to Canada in the 1890s and half the family changed their name from Polansky to Ames in order to fit more into Western Canada and not stand out as Jewish.
One of the psychological effects of changing your name can be a sense of being less genuine or hiding who you are.
In the same sense as it can be empowering, it can also leave you feeling like you are an imposter.
We see that as well in the association of certain cultures and names with prestige or “mainstream” acceptability.
This can extend to first names as well, for example with somebody named Mohammed referring to his name as “Mo” in order to stand out less, particularly, for example in the post 9-11 anti-Muslim climate in much of the West.
When you change your name or even represent it in a different way it can be empowering, but it can also be obscuring as if you don’t want to show who you really are or at least wish to emphasize a different aspect of that.
“If you’re a minority in a country plagued with prejudice and discrimination, you know what a burden your name can become.
“To escape these problems, some people change their names to make them more majority-sounding.”
4) A sense of greater belonging
As I mentioned about my Mandarin class in high school, sometimes a new name can bring a greater sense of belonging.
This is especially true in the case of nicknames which are often bestowed as a mark of affection, or at least recognition.
When an affectionate or neutral nickname is given, it asserts two things:
A familiarity with the person being nicknamed and/or a recognition of their role and purpose in society.
Nicknames often simply shorten the existing name and function as a shorthand way to talk about somebody, so Madeline becomes Maddy and Daniel becomes Danny Boy.
Nicknames can increase the sense of belonging and a certainty and joy in who we are or who we’d like to be in the eyes of others.
An entirely new name can do the same.
In some cases, changing one’s first or last name in order to fit in more to the majority culture or society can increase the sense of belonging.
Although the danger or paradox of feeling like an imposter remains, it is also clearly the case that many parents give their children names they feel will lead to them being more accepted or fit in.
Nobody wants their children to be bullied or picked out as different in a way which traumatizes them.
Popular culture and media also reinforces “cool” names, often starting trends around celebrities and prevalence of names in shows and music that end up becoming more popular.
5) A sense of dislocation
Apart from a sense of belonging, it’s also possible to feel a stronger sense of not belonging as a result of a new name.
Indeed, one of the possible effects of changing your name is a sense of dislocation.
This is a bit different than feeling dissociated, as you don’t necessarily feel detached.
It’s more that you feel confused.
Who are you? Who should you be? Is this new name who you truly are?
This is particularly the case if your new name has involved a break with your family, culture, faith or country.
“By discarding your name, you’re discarding your past.
Similarly, some people no longer want to identify with their families or social groups.
Changing their names helps them dissociate from these groups.”
Name changes or using other names is famously associated with spies, but it can also be a way to feel like a different person or inhabit a different role in your life.
But along with these different roles we sometimes play comes a lot of potential confusion and dislocation about who we really are now.
It’s easy to become caught in the paradox and enter a sort of no man’s land where we lose all identity.
This sense of dislocation can be quite unpleasant, and many of us would have a first instinct to run from it and seek comfort in people, places and ideas that reassure us we are who we think.
But the dislocated feeling actually has a hidden opportunity packed into it that we can access if we are brave.
This is the opportunity to free our mind from the conditioning it’s under.
The best entryway into unlocking our hidden power that I’ve found comes from the world renowned shaman Rudá Iandê.
In his free masterclass on freeing your mind, Rudá takes you on a powerful journey in transcending limiting beliefs so you can bring more freedom and authenticity into your life.
I know that this masterclass has unlocked so much for me in terms of who I really am and my questions over identity that I have regarding my name and outer social roles.
I can’t recommend this masterclass enough.
6) Being closer to your roots
There is also another key thing to note about a change of name.
It can make you feel closer to your roots.
This may include changing one’s name due to a religious conversion, a new spiritual path or wanting to be known by a different cultural or ethnic nomenclature.
It can also include intentionally encouraging people to refer to you by a nickname which you yourself promote which makes you feel cool or powerful.
Years ago before visiting Spain I started to use the name Pablo as a kind of joke, seeing as it was the Spanish equivalent of Paul and I was trying to learn Spanish.
This nickname was used by my friend Johannes on our trip together and around new friends we met, and became more and more widely used.
I ended up using Pablo in various ways including in the name of my company Pablo Productions, and kept it as a nickname even here where I live now in Brazil (where the name Pablo does exist as a fairly well-known Brazilian name, not just Paulo).
Having people call me this name and setting my Uber profile to Pablo makes me feel cooler.
When they say “like Escobar,” I say “sure, or like Picasso.”
I feel close to some kind of cool roots, like an image or idea of myself that is associated with youthful idealism and a kind of confidence and extroversion that I feel life has held me back from but is my real nature.
In many ways, thus, our names and nicknames can help connect us to our roots of who we are or who we think we are in some core way.
There’s another fascinating aspect here when it comes to how changing our name can connect us to our roots.
As country artist Travis Denning sings in his hit song “David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs:”
“I became David Ashley Parker from Powder Springs
November 27 turnin’ 23
Five foot nine, brown hair, blue eyes
Levi’s, tee shirt, all-American guy
Made all the right moves, said all the right things
Showed up with the smokes and I bought all the drinks
Wasn’t who I was, but every now and then I got to be
David Ashley Parker from Powder Springs.”
Denning’s song, co-written along with Jessi Alexander and Jon Randall is about how he bought a fake ID in high school and used it to become a local legend, buying beer for the guys and feeling like the king of the world.
Even though it was a “long shot” to say the ID looked like him, those he presented it to usually went along with it and the protagonist felt a surge of power and wellbeing from this new name and from being this handsome, regular “all-American guy” who others loved.
The new name was his way of becoming “somebody” in a way that mattered to others, and went along with having “all the right moves” and saying “all the right things.”
In this way, David Ashley Parker from Powder Springs, Georgia, became a kind of symbol: the symbol of an ideal and being cool and accepted and loved by everyone.
As Denning sings at the end of the song in the last verse:
“Yeah, one of these days, I sure hope I get to meet David Ashley Parker from Powder Springs.”
His point is well taken, and the blend of nostalgia and upbeat joy is tangible: this new name and its ID brought him power, access and approval.
It reflected who he truly wanted to be and showed him the kind of success he was capable of, at least in a high school environment.
7) Feeling closer to nature
A new name can also bring us closer to our roots in the most literal sense: Mother Nature.
“In industrialized countries, names based on nature gradually fell out of favor.
Names like Rose, Fern, or Pearl were considered old fashioned and unsuitable for the workplace.
Has our failure to maintain names drawn from nature broken our bond with the environment resulting in its unsustainable exploitation?
Recent name studies indicate that names from nature are making a comeback in the United Kingdom with names like Olivia, Ruby, and Lily.”
If my name is Robert and I change my name to River or Wolf, it’s going to create a psychological effect of feeling more revitalized and authentic: in touch with nature!
The wider effects of feeling more in touch with nature are also very fascinating and definitely exist.
When our names remind us every day of nature, we’re less likely to think of the environment as an afterthought or a mere silent handmaiden to our economic and lifestyle desires.
8) Grappling with your true identity
In some cases, a name change can also be a sort of fusion of identities and create the psychological effect of bridging a complexity and forming a new identity.
The largest Japanese diaspora outside of Japan, for example, is right here in Brazil where I currently live.
These people are mainly Japanese ancestry, but they are Brazilian identity and citizens.
Many also intermarry with white, black and mixed Brazilians, leading to many mixed and multicultural families.
The result is many Japanese Brazilians with a Japanese surname and Brazilian first name, for example Camila Tanaka, or a famous reality star I met here named Flávio Nakagima of mixed Brazilian and Japanese ancestry.
A famous surfer and reality star, Nakagima has tattoos all over of Japanese and Samurai symbolism, but he’s also in many ways your stereotypical Brazilian surfer dude, embodying both worlds in his life but also his name.
Grappling with our true identity is often contained deeply within our name but also when we choose or are given a new name.
When you change your name you could be engaging in a bold step forward, but you may also be taking a cowardly run away from baggage you don’t want.
When you change your name you could be getting closer to who you really are and your ethnic, religious or cultural heritage, but you may also be running further away from that or even trying to hide it to escape persecution, seek benefits in society or “fit in.”
The psychological effects of changing our names, then, are as varied as the reasons and contexts within which we change them.
Who am I?
Waugaman has written about how indigenous and First Nations cultures often have traditions of names changing as people age.
“Children receive names that are descriptive, they may be given new names at adolescence, and again as they go through life according to what their life experiences and accomplishments are.”
This is a fascinating concept that takes into account the fact that who we are may be an evolving process rather than a fixed identity.
At the same time, many cultures believe our name involves deep aspects of our identity and it is a badge of honor and pride to keep our name throughout our life.
When we change our name or adopt a new name, we may feel proud and empowered or we may feel ashamed and awkward.
As I mentioned, the psychological effects of changing your name are just as varied as the reasons and contexts within which you change it and why.
At the end of the day we can say that if you are changing your name to something that brings you closer to answering and engaging with the question “who am I?” in a meaningful way, then it is a worthy change.